Saturday, June 12, 2010
In truth, the Mexicans should have killed the game off before half-time. They looked far superior in the first period, their flexible system working superbly well. Rafa Marquez drifted adroitly between defence and midfield, while the nominal fullbacks spent most of their time in the South African half, allowing the three strikers to play off each other in the middle. But poor finishing, Mexico's eternal World Cup problem, reared its head again.
Those who wrote South Africa off before the tournament may yet have to eat their words. After a nervous and unambitious beginning, they moved the ball around sweetly in midfield at times. The ability of Tshabalala and Teko Modise to switch the play rapidly meant occasional danger for the Mexicans, with their fullbacks so far upfield and the wide defensive areas potentially weak (Franck Ribery, take note). The pace of Katlego Mphela looks likely to trouble the other teams in the group as well.
Mexico will need their match-shy young duo of Carlos Vela and Giovanni dos Santos to find their range in the next two games; although dos Santos forced one brilliant save from Itumeleng Khune, there were a fair few efforts that missed by some distance. Potentially, this is one of the finest attacking arrays that the Mexicans have ever had, but they will need to find some consistency in front of goal. At the other end, the eccentric veteran Oscar Perez looks just as much of a liability as he did in Japan in 2002.
The second match was a much duller affair, although at least the French made some attempts to attack in numbers. The first half was a grim reminder of the template that dominated the knockout stage at Germany 2006: packed midfields, isolated strikers, and zero commitment to attack. Uruguay seemed to be relying solely on the striking power of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, since none of their other players showed any aggressive intent whatsoever.
Franck Ribery struggled with his delivery, and France's other main creative outlet, Yoann Gourcuff, had a very poor game. It's not quite clear what is happening up front, either; Nicolas Anelka is not really suited to the pivot role, but neither does he appear an ideal partner for Thierry Henry.
I'm still happy with my pre-tournament prediction that France and South Africa will advance from Group A. The French will surely improve as the tournament progresses (as they did in 2006), and although Mexico showed signs of class, home support could do wonders for South Africa, particularly against a defensive Uruguay.
A final word about the Jabulani ball: there were some more worrying signs. Plenty of passes were overhit (this was particularly noticeable when the Mexicans attempted to switch the play to Paul Aguilar on the right), and shots from distance sailed into the upper atmosphere even more readily than in 2002. Expect some strange things in the coming weeks.
Probably but they will have to hope they haven't left it too late and dropped two valuable points in their opener against the weakest of their three opponents like in 2008 against Romania. It's amazing how slow starting they've become since 2002.